If you’ve been dealing with chronic neck pain or stiffness, or recovering from neck surgery, your doctor might recommend physical therapy. If you’re considering physical therapy for your neck, here are 4 tips to get the most out of this treatment.
1. Set small goals in the beginning
When your neck hurts, the ultimate goal is to eliminate the pain. But rather than focusing on 100% pain relief, first, discuss some short-term goals with your physical therapist or other health professional. Some initial goals might be to reduce swelling and stiffness to improve the neck’s range of motion and/or achieve some small yet noticeable pain relief.
A good time to ask about realistic short-term and long-term goals is after your physical therapist has had a chance to evaluate you and prescribe a treatment plan. For example, if your doctor or physical therapist has prescribed 8 weeks of physical therapy, ask about what type of results might be expected after 2 weeks, 4 weeks, and so on. While nobody can perfectly predict how your body will respond to the physical therapy, it helps to have goals to measure whether the treatment is working or if it should be modified or discontinued.
2. Do the exercises and stretches as directed
A key component of any neck physical therapy program is to improve the neck’s strength and flexibility to better support the cervical spine. In order to achieve this goal, it is important to work with a physical therapist or another health professional who can teach proper techniques for the exercises and stretches. Doing neck exercises or stretches incorrectly can increase the risk for causing further injury or pain.
Depending on your condition and pain level, a physical therapist might modify certain exercises so that you can do them effectively.
3. Keep at it
Results from physical therapy might not be immediate. In fact, when starting new exercises and stretches, the next day your neck might experience some increased swelling, soreness, and/or stiffness. This increased soreness and stiffness usually goes away after a few days. Remember the goals that you and your physical therapist set together, and don’t get discouraged if improvements aren’t observed in the first week.
While you might experience a temporary increase in soreness or discomfort when starting physical therapy, no exercise should cause pain, especially severe pain. If you find that an exercise or stretch significantly increases your pain level, let your physical therapist know immediately.
In addition, some people start to feel better after a few weeks and then place less priority on continuing the treatment sessions. Unfortunately, stopping physical therapy too soon can prevent the neck from achieving the strength and flexibility goals that had been originally set, and thus increase the likelihood for the neck pain to return. It is important to continue the prescribed physical therapy program all the way through to completion.
See Neck Pain Causes
4. Be ready to make lifestyle changes
A comprehensive physical therapy program for neck pain also includes educating the patient about how daily choices can affect the neck. For example, some lifestyle choices that may reduce the risk of neck pain returning could include:
- Living a generally healthy lifestyle by staying active, eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet, and getting quality sleep every day
- Being aware of and using good posture throughout the day, such as by sitting up straight with the head in neutral position (ears directly above the shoulders) and taking regular work breaks to stretch/rest the neck
It is also commonly recommended to continue home exercises and stretches that specifically target the neck to keep it strong and flexible long after the physical therapy program has ended.